The Art of Possibility – Everyone Should Get an A

Have you ever seen the face of a child when they receive an A for their work, test or on their report card? The moment is just precious. The joy and excitement and knowledge that they have done well is an affirmation of their effort and commitment to their work or task. Equally, mums and dads rejoice at their children achieving at this level and you see it in their pride and happiness for their child. Schools value students achieving A grades. We proudly share this news each year when we publish our Year 12 results. In 2019, 28.6% of all grades in Year 12 were an A with over 40 grades at A+, the equivalent of full marks. Society values the A grade and today greater emphasis and expectation is placed on students achieving an A.

About 10 years ago I was introduced to Benjamin Zander’s book The Art of Possibility in which Zander introduced the practice of Giving an A. Zander has been the chief conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra for the last 30 years and he teaches at several Colleges in the US. He introduced his practice of giving an A as a means of breaking a paradigm of seeing the A as a means to norm reference a class. In other words, only a small number of students can achieve the A and most will achieve a C and some will even achieve a D or E because someone has to come last. The idea that we would grade our students according to the normal distribution or bell curve with the mean being the C is very much part of our education system of the last century and no longer relevant.

Benjamin Zander developed this practice of giving an A to each of his students at the start of the year. He was searching for new methods to help his music students who operate in a competitive world of classical music. On the first day of class, he announces that everyone has already been given an A for the semester. Their responsibility however is to 1) document why they have earned that grade in a letter dated 12 months into the future describing how they have achieved the A and 2) act each day as an A student throughout the duration of the semester.

Giving each student an A on the first day of class has revolutionised his students’ lives. Benjamin Zander reports in his book that his students’ performance in the classroom and on stage improved significantly over their past performances. He was successful because he established a relationship based on how he values each student for their potential and capacity, he reinforces that from the beginning and inspires hope and excitement about being at the top of the class. The students become focused on what they want to be and want to achieve. They strive for excellence because that is what is expected from an A student. It completely switches the focus that students believe that they must prove to their teacher that they are worthy of an A.

The Art of Possibility is to see life through a lens which opens a gate for everyone to be successful. It focusses on our strengths and our uniqueness. There are no negative thoughts in this strategy. How many times have you heard a student saying that their worst subject is Mathematics, only to have this statement reinforced by a parent who says that they were never any good at Mathematics either? I understand why parents might say that to support their child, but it reinforces the negative thought of situation hopeless (“I wasn’t any good either”), or to consider another approach of what a glorious opportunity for you to be better than me because you can actually understand it.

At Cardijn we are constantly looking at strategies for supporting students to be at their best. Our slogan is “Inspiring the Best”. That means a deep belief in the Art of Possibility and that we should all start the year with a guaranteed A grade, but only if we can describe what that might look like at the end of the year and that we conduct, commit and work as an A grade student throughout the year. Anything is possible and therefore A grades will continue to rise at Cardijn.

Image credit: Paul Marotta https://www.benjaminzander.org/

Dr Paul Rijken is principal of Cardijn College, a Catholic secondary co-educational school (7-12) in the southern region of Adelaide with a total of 1120 students and 140 staff. Marcellin is a campus of Cardijn College. It provides students in Years 10 to 12 with SACE, training and apprenticeships. It has an enrolment of over 155 students and 30 staff. Paul has been the principal at Cardijn College since 2005. He has a Ph.D. from Curtin University in Science and Mathematics Education. He is a Fellow of the Australian College of Educational Leaders.

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